1940: Part 1

The Letter. Directed by William Wyler. This Warner Brothers-made drama of lust and murder, based on the W. Somerset Maugham short story and play of the same name, stars Bette Davis in one of her greatest roles as Leslie Crosbie, an adulterous wife who shoots her lover to death. She is ably supported by the always mellifluous and reliable Herbert Marshall as her husband, James Stephenson as her attorney and a particularly vicious Gale Sondergaard as the dead man’s widow. You won’t soon forget Sondergaard’s steely gaze whenever she stares anyone down. The beautiful cinematography by Tony Gaudio makes great use of the steamy Malaya setting, incorporating haunting shots of a full moon and moonlight streaming in through windows. The score by Max Steiner is instantly memorable. Seeing this film at a very young age left a definite impression on me, especially because of the unforgettable ending.

My Favorite Wife. Directed by Garson Kanin. Cary Grant might be best known as the suave leading man of Hitchcock thrillers, but some of his finest work was in screwball comedies like this one. (Other notable titles include The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.) In this delightful feature Grant believes that his wife, Irene Dunne, was lost at sea years earlier and he plans to remarry to Gail Patrick. Dunne shows up, having been stranded on an island with Randolph Scott but eventually rescued and wants to get back together with Grant and resume their family life. Naturally, hijinks ensue, the running jokes working thanks to Grant’s gift for comic timing. He has great chemistry with Dunne, who had been his co-star in The Awful Truth. An interesting bit of trivia: the film was intended to be remade with Marilyn Monroe in 1962 as Something’s Got to Give, but the project was scrapped not long before Monroe’s death and eventually made as Move Over, Darling (1963) with Doris Day. Also of note: the men who edited and photographed My Favorite Wife, Robert Wise and Rudolph Maté respectively, both became talented directors.

Rebecca. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. One of Hitch’s greatest romances, this Best Picture Oscar winner is an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same title. It stars the incomparable Laurence Olivier as “Maxim” de Winter, a brooding man who’s sort of like Jane Eyre’s Rochester updated for modern times with just as much baggage in the terrible-first-wife department. Joan Fontaine, so good at playing the lovely but vulnerable heroine (like Jane Eyre in the film made in 1943), is as great as ever as the second Mrs. de Winter, a woman whose own name is never spoken, always living in the shadow of Rebecca (the first Mrs. de Winter). The best of all the supporting players is Judith Anderson, whose portrayal of Mrs. Danvers, still eerily devoted to Rebecca even after the woman’s death, is outstanding. I would be remiss if I did not also mention George Sanders, Nigel Bruce, Reginald Denny, C. Aubrey Smith, Gladys Cooper, Florence Bates and Leo G. Carroll, all of whom contribute wonderfully to the production.

The Shop Around the Corner. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. It is difficult to pick just one favorite Lubitsch film. Oftentimes I think it’s Ninotchka, but then I wonder if it’s Trouble in Paradise, then The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg… then I think of The Shop Around the Corner. This heartwarming romantic comedy is peppered with drama but is ultimately uplifting. If you are familiar with Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail or the Judy Garland musical In the Good Old Summertime, you will recognize the premise: a man and a woman, who work in the same shop, bicker in real life without realizing that they are pen pals, corresponding through beautiful (and anonymous) love letters. The secret paramours are played by the luminous Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart in one of his least “aw shucks”-type roles. Frank Morgan, probably best known for playing the title character in The Wizard of Oz, gives perhaps his finest performance as the shop owner, Mr. Matuschek. Joseph Schildkraut, Felix Bressart and William Tracy are among the other shop employees, all doing some of their best work.

The Thief of Bagdad. Directed by Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan. One of the greatest fantasy films ever made, this exciting adventure tale stars the legendary German star Conrad Veidt as the villain Jaffar, acting in the only color film of his storied but all too short career. The handsome English actor John Justin is the film’s hero, Ahmad, doing a fine job as the lead; he was unfortunately relegated to supporting parts in most other films, from what I can tell. He is extraordinarily handsome, especially in the scene when he professes his love for the princess played by June Duprez. The other two major stars of the film are Sabu and Rex Ingram, the former an English actor of Indian descent who was quite popular in the 40s and the latter an African-American actor who played a diverse array of roles (The Green Pastures, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Cabin in the Sky, Sahara) with dignity. The Oscar-winning cinematography by Georges Périnal adds a gorgeously colorful sense of joy to the overall product.

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One thought on “1940: Part 1

  1. You’ve just reviewed 5 of my absolutely favorite films. Great reading. We teach Illustration for artists & The Letter is the film we always recommend to our students.
    Besides the amazing Gale Sondergaard, we love Victor sen Yung’s performance, so smarmy & different from his “#2 Son” role in the Charlie Chan films.

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